The entity stood at the centre of everything, the beginning of everything. The globe he stood within was the size of a Universe. It shimmered and shone; waves of colour cascaded across its surface. It was the fabric of existence, a maelstrom of beginnings.
The globe sighed. “What is it this time?”
“There is a contract,” said the entity.
“Ah,” said the globe. “Our old friend up to his tricks again. I shall ensure it is dealt with.”
“It is of prime urgency.”
“Really?” A shimmer of surprised gold and silvers rippled the globe. “Are you saying there is a soul out there stupid enough to sign it?”
“Then it is done.”
“It’s beginning,” said the elder of the two men.
His younger companion grunted. “What is?” he asked, without turning his attention from the battle.
“The end,” said the older man. He pulled his collar up, cleared his throat noisily, spat at the ground and missed. “What did you say all this is about then?”
“The militia on the left, they say it is God’s will that hats be worn on the sabbath, whilst the one’s on the right say that people’s heads should be bare. Apparently to allow God to see the purity of their thoughts better.” He glanced at his companion. “You’ve got something on your chin.”
The older man wiped his sleeve across his chin and gazed at it for a moment before wiping it on his trousers. “Looks like the hats have it.”
“Aye, and there’s a lot of good men going to find out whether they were right or wrong this day.”
“Perhaps they should have worn something on their heads today, there’s a lot of skulls getting cracked down there,” said the older man.
For a while they stood in silence, watching the battle grind the enthusiasm from the remaining combatants. After a few minutes, the older man tugged his companion’s sleeve and pointed down the slope. “Uh-Huh, what do we have here?”
Scrabbling up towards them was one of the soldiers from the all but defeated militia. “Leave him be, he ain’t going to be worth any effort,” said the young man.
“We got time, might as well put it to some use. Yon battle is dying but it ain’t quite dead yet. Let’s go and meet him, see if we can’t make a penny or two.” He strode off to meet the soldier.
Shaking his head, the young man turned and followed his companion. “There’ll be far more lucrative business on yonder field.”
The soldier, bedraggled and battle weary, pulled himself gasping and panting through a thicket of bushes onto a small plateau. The two men were waiting.
“A good day to you, Sire,” said the older man.
The soldier looked up and immediately stumbled backwards. “Sweet Lord!” he cried. “A demon!”
The older man was completely unperturbed by the soldier’s reaction. “Ah sir, I am no demon, it is just that your taste ain’t refined enough to appreciate true beauty,” he said. He squinted at the soldier. “I assume that your superiors ordered you here to save the day with some plan or another, as it doesn’t appear your militia is faring too well.”
“Plan?” the soldier laughed manically. “There’s nobody down there with a plan. There’s barely anybody down there with a full set of limbs anymore.”
“Ah I see, then we shall call it a partial redeployment of troops for tactical reasons.”
The soldier stared blankly at him. “You can call it whatever you like, I call it saving my own skin.”
“Ah yes, and there ain’t nothing so precious in this world than our own skin,” said the older man. “And life is such a delicate thing to be contained within it, is it not?” He didn’t wait for a reply before continuing. “Perhaps today has shown you that all too well. But no mind, meeting us will bring you some cheer,” he nodded towards the younger man. “My partner and I are here to offer you help and guidance and a golden opportunity.”
The soldier said nothing.
“Perhaps you would be so kind as to let us introduce ourselves, I’m Alfred Jones, the senior partner in Alfred Jones and Son, Bros. And this is my junior partner, my brother and son Alfred.”
“Brother and son?” asked the soldier.
“That’s right,” said Old Alfred. “There’s nothing healthier than breeding within the family, that’s what they say. That’s what our family says anyhow. Good breeding stock, you see.” And he gestured at himself with a grubby thumb. He was squat and bow-legged with a face that bore more than a passing resemblance to a gargoyle. His ragged ears stuck out like jug handles. His teeth, where there were any, jutted and protruded at a variety of acute angles. His eyes seemed to be pointing somewhere to his far right when he looked at you.
But it was the nostrils.
The nostrils stared with a certainty the eyes could only dream of. Dark caverns that whistled and pulsed in rhythm with Old Alfred’s breathing.
“I’m not so sure I agree with that,” said the soldier.
“Not many do,” said Young Alfred. He’d somehow missed the core of rotten genes that were constantly swapped between members of the Jones family. He stood a good foot taller than his father. He wore his hair long and tied back in a ponytail, piercing blue eyes displayed an intelligence that his father had also missed out on. And they pointed in the right direction. As did his nostrils.
Old Alfred ignored his son. “Well, it’s the truth,” he said. “And I’d wager you couldn’t tell me who your mother is.”
“Course I could, she’s me Ma.”
“Aye, but do you know where…” he paused and looked towards the battlefield. The soldier found himself looking Old Alfred in the eye for the first time; an experience he found quite unsettling. “But perhaps this is a conversation for another time. Now tell me good sir, do you have a reputable undertaker?” he asked, turning his head towards the soldier, and his eyes, much to the soldier’s relief, towards the battlefield.
“Undertaking is our business,” explained Old Alfred. “There are none finer in the land at it than our good selves. What we offer is this. In the unfortunate event of your death, we will undertake to dispose of your worldly remains in a manner fitting your standing and eh…” He stopped and surveyed the soldier for a moment, “…Your budget, now tell me, are you a landed gentleman?”
“I was a simple farmhand, fore the militia came and took me.”
“Ah shame, shame. Would you have any currency upon you?”
“I have but two farthings.”
“Excellent, then you’ll be pleased to know that you still qualify for our basic burial. So, if you would just like to sign this.”
The soldier looked dubiously at the piece of paper offered to him. “I would need to be stupid to sign this. What if I die in ten years time? How will you know? How will you find me?”
“What was I telling you Alfred, eh? That’s a clever man, did I not tell you that? there goes an intelligent man I said.”
Young Alfred grunted noncommittally.
The soldier slowly backed away.
“Just two farthings sire, it’ll change your life,” said Old Alfred.
“Just what would I get in this basic burial, anyway?”
“We stick you in a sack and feed you to the pigs,” said Young Alfred.
“Ah, now, that’s…” began Old Alfred.
But the soldier had already turned and stomped off.
Old Alfred turned to his son and slapped him on the back of the head. “What did you go and tell him that for?”
“It’s the truth,” said Young Alfred rubbing his head.
“No it ain’t.”
“It is, that’s what we’ve done with the last three.”
“Aye but we ain’t done it to him yet, so it ain’t true. Is it?”
“Aye, whatever you say, Pa,” said Young Alfred.
“Pa, you say!” Old Alfred poked his son on the shoulder. “I’ve been wondering about that a lot lately and I ain’t so sure I’m the one that spawned you. Have you ever looked at your reflection? Your face ain’t right and you don’t give a hoot about the business. You’re a bleeding monster lad, that’s what you are. You’re more like that godforsaken Archibald.” Old Alfred spat in disgust as he mentioned the name. Archibald was their younger brother who had left the business, failing to share Old Alfred’s enthusiasm or belief in the family trade.
“I wish I could do what he did, at least he doesn’t have to listen to your sales pitch day after day.”
“It’s my sales pitch that keeps this business going. If you cared for your poor old man at all, you would listen and learn instead of chasing sales away. Our mother and I are relying on you to keep the good name of our business going after we are gone.”
“I’m young Pa, I want to see the world, I want to have fun.”
“Fun! There was no such thing as fun when I was young. Young people these days don’t know how easy they’ve got it. Anyway, you are seeing the world,” said Old Alfred and he swept his hand across the vista of the battlefield, where the clang of steel was slowly being replaced by the sounds of screaming and sobbing.
“All I see is battlefields and towns infested with plague. That’s not the world, that’s not what I want to see. I want to go to the city. I want to revel in the bars and brothels and with people my own age.”
“Brothels is it. That’s what it is, you’re in heat aren’t you? Well perhaps I’ve a bit of news that might cheer you up then. We were going to tell you on your birthday, but we ain’t sure when that is, so I be thinking that now is as good a time as any. We’re going to make you a little sister, so you can marry too. What do you think of that piece of news, eh? Soon you’ll have a little wife of your own.”
“I don’t want a sister wife. I want to choose a girl like everyone else does, and anyway what if it’s a boy?”
“Then you’ll just have to make do and mend; besides there are a lot of advantages, for a start you won’t have to put up with a bleeding woman in your life and…”
“Ain’t you pair got work to go to!”
Young Alfred looked towards the caravan. His mother sat perched on the wooden step, he waved an acknowledgement. She, at least, understood his situation, she knew of his dreams.
Patience, that’s what she’d advised him. And he’d be patient for now, but soon he told himself, soon he’d be clear of all this. Then he sighed, for he knew it was nothing to do with patience. He knew that if he really had the bravery to break free from the family bonds he’d have been long gone. But he wasn’t gone, he was still here. Patience was just a comfort blanket that he could hide behind, hide from the truth of the matter. He was a Jones, an outcast. Living on the fringe of society and scraping a living from the death of others, as he likely always would.
“See what you did now, you upset my wife! I’ll be bedding with you tonight and you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.”
The men argued all the way to the battlefield, ignoring the stream of soldiers that limped and crawled past them. Some were helping wounded comrades, some pleaded for help. But none were dead or rich enough to be of any interest.
When they reached the edge of the field Old Alfred cast his eye over the dying battle for a few seconds. “What do you say lad, you ready to go to work?”
“It’s not like I’ve got a choice, is it?”
“Ah, no need to be like that,” said Old Alfred “Are you smelling that blood? There be rich pickings here, I can feel it in my bones. Just remind me again where they put their mark.”
“Good grief, you put it there, there where it says signature,” said Young Alfred, waving a copy of the contract in his father’s face.
“Ah don’t be like that, you know your old Pa don’t read too well.”
“That’s your own fault. I’ve offered to teach you many times. But oh no, you’re above all that, so I’m the poor sod that has to pen all the contracts.”
“I’ll make you a deal, you learn to be a salesman and I’ll learn to write. But for now, you can’t sell and I can’t write or read proper so let’s do what we’re good at.” He stopped and surveyed the battlefield again. “Now, you should have a scout round the south side of the field, and I’ll have a look up north and see what’s about. What say you?”
“It would, as ever, be my pleasure,” and with that he trudged off towards the south.
Old Alfred headed north through the carnage of the battlefield. All around him lay the dead and barely living. Some were missing limbs, some were missing heads and some were all but reduced to a trampled pulp. The field was saturated with their blood and the small stream running through it flowed red. Old Alfred strolled through the carnage like he was out for a Sunday walk, an air of nonchalance surrounding him. Occasionally he would approach a livelier victim and give them a kick or ask them a question, but so far none of their responses told him he had found a likely sale. He continued on his way, kicking and prodding as he went, until eventually he found what he was looking for. He could see from a distance that the injured knight had potential, and as he got closer it became apparent that this was just what he’d been looking for. The knight wore a full set of armour that looked like it cost a pretty penny, obviously a man of great standing. Old Alfred was delighted when he found the knight was conscious, but immobile.
“A fine day to you sire,” he said looking down at the stricken knight.
The knight looked up at Alfred, who’s eyes seemed to be focussed on the summit of one of the surrounding hills. “I’m sorry, are you addressing me?”
“Indeed I am, let me introduce myself. I am Alfred Jones of Alfred Jones and Son, Bros. A fine old company who are here to see if we can offer you some comfort in this time of distress. Could I be so bold to enquire as to whom I am speaking?”
The Knight looked about, searching for an ally or at least something a bit more human-like that could help him in his plight.
“Take your time,” said Old Alfred. “I see you ain’t wearing a hat and there be plenty of soldiers with hats still roaming about. Perhaps I could get them to assist.”
The knight had one last quick look about, then looked up at Old Alfred. “I am Sir Edward Norris of Burnbury, an estate not twenty miles from here. If you could somehow see yourself clear to spirit me away from this field and onwards to my estate, then I shall ensure you are rewarded handsomely. Be hasty though, my enemies may come across me at any time.”
“That I shall sir, that I shall. But no reward will be necessary, for I am about to offer you the chance to join the happy family of Alfred Jones and Son, Bros. Once that’s done, then we shall move heaven and earth in our endeavours to return you to your abode. Where no doubt your next of kin and the executors of your estate reside. Would I be correct in my assumption?”
“Just get me off this damned field will you!”
“All in good time sir. Now, may I suggest that for a man of your standing a Royal burial would be appropriate. This is our top package and is crammed full of features not available in our lesser contracts. So, if you would sign just here, we can be on our way.” He offered the contract and a quill pen dripping with ink to the prostate knight.
“What the hell is this talk? Just get me off this field before they find me!”
“Ah sir, once you have completed the business at hand, we will have you out of your predicament quicker than the plague sweeps through London. Just sign the contract and we’ll be on our way.”
“What contract? What the hell are you talking about?”
“This, sir, is not just a contract. This is the total peace of mind that comes from knowing that on the sad event of your death, your remains will be in good hands. For once you sign this contract, we’ll undertake to deal with the tricky matter of your mortal remains. In doing so taking the pain and grief of that task from the sad souls left behind. Of course, a man of your standing would expect a grand sending off. To that end our catering arm run by my wife and mother is the best in the land at ensuring your send-off is befitting someone of your stature. Indeed, by signing this contract you be will treated as one of the family and have at your disposal a whole host of benefits. Such as getting you off this battlefield, for instance. All this for just a pitiful five guineas, payable upon your sad demise.”
“Five guineas, five guineas to bury me, are you jesting?” spluttered the knight.
“Five guineas sir, but payable on death and the benefits, well, they would start immediately. So, the quicker you sign, the quicker we can usher you to safety.”
Once more the knight desperately scanned the battlefield. “Payable on death, no deposit?”
“I think, in your case sir, a deposit will be unnecessary. Shall I show you again where to sign?”
He took the proffered quill and with a flourish signed the contract and handed it back to Old Alfred. “There!” he said. “Now get me off this bloody field.”
“Excellent sir, a very wise decision, and may I take this opportunity to welcome you to the family. A family that will treat you as one of its own for as long as you live, however long that may be. Now sir, are you at all able to sit up? For that would make my job so much easier if you were.”
“I think so. Though I may need some assistance, this blasted armour is too heavy. I sunk in the mud and had to stand here like a bloody scarecrow fighting the buggers off. Then some coward snapped my leg from behind. But I lived, and I won’t forget, they can count on that.” He struggled into a sitting position.
“Ah sir, you won’t forget because your time left on this earth is too short for those memories to fade. Now, if I can just get your head like this,” said Alfred.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“And twist it like so.”
For once Old Alfred was as surprised as his victim, never had he received a round of applause upon concluding a piece of business. He hadn’t been aware of anyone else within a furlong of him. He swung round and came face to face with a stranger who was clapping vigorously. The man was dressed immaculately and despite the muddy battlefield his clothing was spotless. The black boots he wore sparkled in the sunshine, above these he wore black leggings topped by a waist length black jacket, a white shirt collared by a small ruff completed the ensemble.
“Bravo sir, bravo! A fine show of salesmanship if you don’t mind me saying so, and what a finale,” said the stranger with an exaggerated bow.
Old Alfred looked around anxiously before replying. “Ah now, I was just trying to help this unfortunate soul out of his tricky predicament, but I fear he may have sustained an earlier neck injury, for it just snapped like a twig,” said Alfred, looking at his hands as if wondering how they could have performed such an act.
The stranger winked at Alfred. “Ah yes, an accident, you are correct of course. It was nothing but a tragic accident,” he said.
Old Alfred was nothing if not resilient, and the salesman in him was embedded in his consciousness so deeply that his reflexes took over.
“Yes, indeed sire, a tragic accident, but is there not a warning there for us all? Life is such a fragile thing is it not? And good sir, is it not one of life’s tragedies that so few of us realise this and make plans for what happens after we tragically pass on. I wonder if you, yourself, have made such a provision? I would wager not. Lucky then that you should chance upon me for I am Alfred Jones the senior partner of the firm of travelling undertakers which bears my name. Perhaps you have heard of us?”
“Indeed, I have Alfred,” said the stranger. “And may I say it is a great honour to meet you at last, your reputation goes before you. But this is no accidental meeting, there is a reason that I find myself on this battlefield. It is, in fact, a business proposal I have for you that brings me here.”
Alfred was surprised when the stranger put his arm round his shoulders, surprised because a second ago he was standing a dozen feet away and surprised by the absolute chill of the stranger’s touch.
“Now Alfred, you and I are both men of the world, salesmen of the world perhaps, and if you don’t mind me saying so, a finer salesman it would be hard to find. So, would I be right in presuming that any business proposal I have for Alfred Jones and Son, Bros. could be concluded with yourself, without any interference from junior partners? Who, let’s say, do not yet understand the finer intricacies of business?”
Old Alfred was rarely and easily flattered, all doubts he held about the stranger disappeared as his head swelled with pride. “Ah fine sir, it is so nice to find one’s skills appreciated, and I agree, I see no need to bother my junior partner with our discussions. But before we continue, you appear to have the advantage of knowing my business, where I know nothing of you. Perhaps an introduction is in order?”
“Ah yes, an introduction,” said the stranger. “Are you sure? There are some people, well most people in truth, who once they hear of my identity can be reluctant to partake in business with me, perhaps it would be better you didn’t know. My reputation does not offer me any favours I’m afraid.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that where I’m concerned,” said Old Alfred without hesitation. “I ain’t one to take heed of somebody’s reputation and I ain’t too fussy about who I do my business with.”
“Ah, a man after my own heart. Excellent. Well then Alfred, I’m a man known my many names, not all of them are complimentary. Some know me as Iblis, others call me Beelzebub or the Fallen Angel, but mostly I’m referred to as the Devil or just Satan. You can call me whichever or whatever you like, it will not change what I am.”
“Fair enough, makes no odds to me,” said Old Alfred with a shrug of the shoulders.
Satan’s smile widened. “Good,” he said rubbing his hands together. “Now, obviously I am in the business of souls, and that my friend is where you come in. For where there are dead bodies there are souls waiting to be collected, and where there are dead bodies invariably there or thereabouts will be found the company of Alfred Jones and Son, Bros.”
He waved his hand, Alfred was sure he saw a spark, certainly he heard a hiss and equally certainly the man was now brandishing a piece of parchment. “And so without further ado Alfred, I am going to offer to you the chance of a lifetime. No, the chance of a hundred or a thousand lifetimes even,” he put his arm back round Alfred’s shoulders and his mouth close to his ear. “And the chance to live those thousand lifetimes,” he said quietly.
A quill appeared in Satan’s hand. “Shall I show you where to put your mark?”
Young Alfred peered anxiously at his father and the stranger over the shoulders of two knights. His father didn’t have a great record with strangers, they usually ended up dead. But something about this meeting was making him feel more uneasy than usual.
“You say you are on nobody’s side?” one of the knights asked.
“That’s right Sire,” said Alfred, watching with increasing horror as the stranger waved a parchment in his father’s face. “I take no sides in your quarrel, I am merely a travelling salesman passing through.”
“If you take no sides then that must mean you are not our ally, and if you are not our ally it follows that you must be our enemy,” the soldiers smiled at each other, the bloodlust of battle was still upon them and the boy represented an easy kill to boost their bragging rights. In unison they began to draw their swords from their scabbards. Alfred watched as his father made his mark on the paper. He drew his own knife, dispatched the two soldiers and was striding towards his father before the knight’s swords had been fully drawn.
“You’ve signed what?”
“Ah son, you’ve not got the business brain to understand, but this contract we have with um…” Old Alfred paused as he wondered how best to address their new business partner. “Our new friend over here,” he said, pointing at the stranger. Who throughout the exchange had watched silently, a smile frozen upon his face. “All we have to do is collect a soul a day and we are paid a gold sovereign for each,” a look of pain appeared on his face as he calculated. “That’s only twenty souls a year and we’ll get paid three hundred odd sovereigns for our work, we can retire in year or so, that’s a good bit of business in anybody’s book.”
“No, we won’t, let me point out some flaws in your plan.” Young Alfred studied the document. It was just a single page, probably not binding. But that didn’t quell his fury. Sooner or later his father would put his mark to something, and that something would come back and bite them. He turned his attention back to his father. “Firstly, you complete and utter fool, a soul a day is three hundred and sixty-five souls a year not twenty! How come you can count money correctly, but you can’t do numbers? How can that be?”
“Numbers are stupid, how can they be real if you can’t touch them. Now money, that’s another thing, you can touch it.”
Young Alfred shook his head and laughed derisively. “What you are telling me is that you can’t count numbers!”
“That’s right, I have difficulty…”
“Father there’s more brains in your head-lice than there is inside your head!”
“Ah now son, that’s going a bit far.”
Young Alfred turned to the stranger. “This can’t possibly be binding, how can something like this be true?”
The stranger beamed at Young Alfred and assured him it was all legal and above board. And extremely binding.
Young Alfred lunged at his father, but before he could reach him the stranger was standing in-between them and holding them apart with outstretched arms. His smile was bigger than ever.
“Partners, partners let’s go to work, shall we?”
The caravan lumbered along the road. It was a dark and stormy night, and the two Alfreds sat in silence.
The caravan was now over six hundred years old and just like the residents its condition had not deteriorated in the slightest. It had creaked along the road six hundred years ago, and it creaked along the road now. Barely visible, in faded gold paint, was the motif Alfred Jones and Son, Bros. The wording was the only dash of colour on the caravan, which otherwise, was painted black with a thick tar like paint that had remained tacky despite the passage of time.
“I don’t like this Pa,” said Young Alfred.
“Aye, right you are son, I’ll just pull over in this here layby, shall I? Is that what you’d suggest? maybe we can just ignore that,” he said, pointing at the strange device Young Alfred was clutching. “Bloody thing, its black magic that’s what it is.”
Young Alfred smiled ruefully, his father’s ability to denounce anything he didn’t understand as black magic or wizardry still amused him. “Aye, there’s too much magic about these days!” he shouted, struggling to be heard over the hammering rain. “There wasn’t so much of it about when we were young, six hundred odd years ago.”
“Right enough. Just a shame you ain’t so right when it comes to counting souls.”
Young Alfred gritted his teeth as he fought the urge to punch his brother. Now wasn’t the time. They couldn’t ignore the message they’d received on the strange contraption. It was a message chilling in its simplicity – YOUR SOUL CREDIT IS LOW, PLEASE ARRANGE A TOP UP BY MIDNIGHT. It shouldn’t have been though; his calculations were always meticulous and by his reckoning they should have had two more days credit. He assumed his father had been up to his old tricks again. “Perhaps it’s not my counting at fault!” he shouted. “Maybe somebody sitting not too far from me has been doing a bit of illicit neck snapping!”
Old Alfred wallowed in the guilty silence of his response.
“I thought so!” said Young Alfred angrily. He should have known. It was the two very convenient souls he’d taken from the nursing home. The ones that had their heads strangely supported on pillows. These were the ones that had thrown his calculations out, these were the ones that didn’t fulfil the terms of the contract.
Namely Clause 3a.
No soul shall be reckoned where the life force of the soul-vessel hath been removed wilfully by the contractor or parties acting on behalf of the contractor.
It was a clause Old Alfred persistently denied existed. And constantly flouted. The worst instance was during a war in a distant land, when his father had somehow managed to get himself into a position to order a platoon of light cavalry to charge against an artillery battery. He had gathered sixty-seven souls that day. All of them were rejected.